Precious Cells: Inside the business of stem cell storage

Salem, a qualified doctor, founded the company along with his wife, a dentist. He says the decision to go into stem cells originated in a desire to protect his first child once his wife had become pregnant.

“We were expecting our first child and wanted to store the [umbilical] cord blood, knowing that this was going to be quite a valuable resource. 

“I was involved in one of the largest European trials for stem cells for people suffering from a heart attack. Part of the research I was involved in found that we were treating older patients with their own stem cells and a majority of them were on a range of different drugs, like Beta-blockers. 

“I was thinking that this treatment was just not as effective had the cells been harvested from a younger patient, and if they had not been on those drugs.”

Stem cells harvested from adults typically come from the richest store of blood cells – the bone marrow; but optimally, it would be the more ‘naive’ or non-specilised cells in the umbilical cord (as opposed to the embryo itself, the idea of which causes so much controversy.) 

In the UK as well as in the world, there is a multi-billion pound industry in stem cell banking. Customers, often high net-worths, store their stem cells at a time when they’re healthy, at a registered stem cell bank, to access them when they’re needed for such medical problems as heart disease and cancer. These procedures are safer and less expensive then modern day analogues – for example, treatment of a stroke would cost £150,000 with stem cells – compared to £800,000 on the NHS. 

It was during the heart attack medical trials that Salem developed the idea which would spin out into a business. “So it was kind of like the eureka moment: a stem cell should come from a patient when he was, A, younger and, B, before taking any [prescribed] drugs.”

Salem, his wife and various friends launched Precious Cells Group, now based in a lab outside of London, in 2010.

The business expanded quickly, accepting the wide gamut of patients – pregnant women, the elderly, and genetically predisposed individuals – who wanted to bank their stem cells. 

“We’ve got a team of trained technicians working 24 hours a day 7 days a week in the maternity hospital department,” he says, as well as partnering with a private hospital in London.

“Every single parent now that comes into that hospital is offered the choice of donating it which helps the government, or storing it for themselves and their family’s use only, and they pay a fee.”

Despite this growth, and as might be expected in an industry as complex and specialised as stem cell banking, the company is faced with a number of challenges. Primarily, that of awareness. 

Even those who should know, i.e. patients for whom stem cells could make a real difference in treatment and disease prevention, often don’t known about it – it is illegal for anyone in the NHS to ‘advertise’ for a private service, even if the NHS doesn’t offer a like-for-like service.

“The umbilical cord, which has a lot of [the most valuable] blood, is classed as medical waste. So it just gets incinerated. Our [partnered] hospital gets 15-20 pregnant women walking through it everyday: none of them have heard of chord blood banking.

When people leave the hospital, they ask, ‘Why haven’t I heard of this? Why’s my doctor not told me about this?'”

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